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Liquid Poetry: Terroir

Whether you’re out enjoying a cocktail at a bar or mixing one up in your own home, it’s easy to forget the means in favor of the delicious end. That is, it’s easy to focus on the flavors in the glass and forget about the natural and human forces responsible for creating those flavors.

About Terroir

Go to any distillery, and they’ll be quick to educate you on the origin of their grain, the quality of their botanicals, and even the source of the water they use. Regardless of how much that might either bore or stimulate you, it’s important stuff! The flavors in the spirits we imbibe are influenced heavily by terroir, which is a French word that refers both to the land itself and to other natural processes like weather and climate.

Here are just some of the important aspects of terroir that impact the spiritous flavors in your glass:

Soil Type, Elevation, Water Quality, Water Availability, Water Table Depth, Air Temperature, Humidity, Wind, Air Quality, Sun Exposure, Proximity to Salt Water

Image of Terroir

From a scientific standpoint, terroir makes a lot of easy sense. All alcoholic beverages come into being as a result of chemical reactions, and chemicals are very particular things. Change something about the structure of the chemical, and you change the nature of the reaction; change the nature of the reaction, and you change the end flavor experience of the product.

From an emotional standpoint, though, there’s a lot to be gained from pausing to openly consider terroir. For example, I recently had a conversation with someone who made a point to pick up California wines from a certain year because that year was a particularly bad one for wildfires in that state. He explained that knowing the atmospheric conditions of that vintage allows him to seek out and appreciate the smoky, vegetal notes in those wines more so than in other vintages.

True, this is a rather specific approach to terroir. We can’t all run around prospecting wildfire-infused wine. But think about it this way:

When you choose to drink a certain type of spirit (yes, even vodka!), you’re participating in the natural and human processes that brought that spirit into existence. You are literally drinking the sunlight, water, oxygen, and soil from a different year, all packaged up and refined in a liquid time capsule by the caring efforts of someone who makes it their occupation to bring pleasure to people just like you. That’s pretty powerful.

The Rusty Nail – A Scotch Cocktail

When it comes to terroir, there’s almost no better case study than Scotch Whisky. It’s a spirit that is subject to rigorous geographic and compositional regulations, the result of which is a field of flavor that stretches from sweet and unctuous, to saline, to smoky and peaty, and many places in between.

This cocktail, the Rusty Nail, is a great introductory Scotch cocktail in that it combines Scotch (any sort!) with a Scotch-based liqueur (Drambuie). Take some time to read up on the different flavor profiles found in Scotch Whiskys from different regions of Scotland, and you’ll get a pretty good sense of where you might want to start!

Ingredients

  • 1.5 oz Scotch Whisky
  • .75 oz Drambuie

Instructions

Combine all ingredients in a rocks glass with ice, stir until chilled, and garnish with a lemon twist.

An Emotional Terroir

This series is called “Liquid Poetry,” and I couldn’t justifiably leave you hanging without a poem to cap things off. The following poem is by a poet named Robert Morgan, who actually authored a collection entitled, Terroir. Fitting, right?

Hayfield

It is the syrup in the grass
that must be caught, the sweet juice drawn
up from the roots and brewed in the leaves
until the stalks are full from joint
to joint like little pipes of ale
mellowing in late midsummer.
And quick, before the last leaf dries
or roots withdraw, it is the sap
in grass that must be left
to crystallize in fibers, preserving
like honey in a mummy’s chest
the blade and vein intact, storing
the high sugars of the sun in
aromatic teas, tobaccos,
and little corn of timothy
and slender sorghum’s golden flutes
to scent the barn and sweeten milk
far into the bleaching winter

-Robert Morgan

When you can see and taste terroir in action, the world becomes a lovelier place. There it is in words, now get out there and make it happen in your home, on your palate, and in your own imagination.

Stay thirsty, stay bitter.

-Eric Kozlik

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